Living a balanced life filled with work and
prayer. The vows of stability, conversatio morum
and obedience commit us to serving God
in a monastery for the whole of our lives.
for my feet, and a light
for my path.’ (Ps.119:105)
St Jerome said that ‘ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ.’ Monks and nuns are lovers of the Word. By spending time pondering scripture we grow into a relationship with Christ, the living Word. This is a characteristically Benedictine way of praying.
In our daily lectio divina we listen, meditate and respond to Christ speaking to us. Lectio is primarily an exercise in listening; we read slowly and attentively, waiting for Lord to speak to us through a word or phrase. Learning how to do Lectio can be tricky at the beginning, but our monks and nuns are always happy to help the “beginner”.
“With Christ’s help, keep this little Rule that we have written for beginners”
The Eucharist makes the Church, the Body of Christ. It also “makes” the monastic community. Mass is a privileged time when we offer ourselves wholeheartedly to the Lord along with the gifts of bread and wine, and, by receiving him in Holy Communion, allow him to transform us too into the Body of Christ, just as surely as the gifts are transformed. St Benedict wanted all goods of the monastery to be treated as sacred vessels of the altar. The dignity in the way we behave and pray in church is echoed in the way we live out the rest of the day. Our daily celebration and reception of the Lord’s gift of himself sustains and shapes our monastic day and indeed our whole lives, both as individuals and as a community.
The principal work of a monk or nun is prayer and especially that of the Liturgy of the Hours (also known as the Divine Office). A community comes together six or seven times a day to pray the prayer of the Church, and consecrate the whole day to God. Liturgical prayer calls us to open our hearts to the Word of God as it is addressed to us in the Psalms and other inspired books of Scripture, and in the writings of the Fathers of the Church.
‘O Lord, open my lips and my mouth shall proclaim your praise.’ (Ps 50:17)
The light of Christ guides the monk or nun on their monastic journey and our abbey churches are full of light. The monastic world, however, is divided between those who turn lights on and those who turn them off. Or alternatively between those who open windows and those who close them!
1001 ways to sing alleluia. In the monastic book of sung prayers for Mass, the Graduale, there are many different musical settings of the word Alleluia, some solemn and some lively, some long and some short. A setting of this single word can take several minutes to sing.
Feasting and Fasting. The monastic refectory is a place of contrasts, some days there is bread and soup, other days roast meat followed by a pudding. On ordinary days water is the tipple of the day but on special feast days…water becomes wine! This balance is typical of the Benedictine tradition.
Monasteries have kept alive the childhood memory of being read to. Meals may be in silence but someone is chosen to read to the rest of the community. The books are often history or biography, both religious and secular. This custom is both educational and relaxing, a happy combination.
As there is silence during meals, there are hand signals to ask for food. For water, point with the first three fingers, as in the Boy Scout salute! For bread, extend the whole hand above the table. For butter, draw a line on the table with the finger.
The Glory of St. Benedict mural by Pietro Annigoni, at Montecassino
As a student in Rome, St. Benedict of Nursia (480-550) left to become a monk and abbot of his monastery at Monte Cassino. Here he wrote his Rule for Monks, famous for its wisdom and moderation. It became the most important monastic rule in western Europe, and St.Benedict is therefore called the Patriarch of Western Monasticism.
After the Roman monk, St. Augustine of Canterbury, landed in Kent in 597, Benedictine monasteries were established throughout England. They enjoyed the patronage of the English crown and became important centres of social welfare, education, and the arts. Many of England's most magnificent cathedrals and churches were English Benedictine foundations.
Bust reliquary of St.Ambrose Barlow OSB, martyr
King Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries between 1536 and 1539, and the monks were dispersed. Some Englishmen went abroad and joined European monasteries. In 1619 these came together to refound the English Benedictine Congregation by establishing new English monasteries in exile. The Congregation sent monk missionaries to England, some of whom suffered martyrdom through the penal laws.
Dame Catherine Gascoigne
The English Benedictine Congregation was unusual in that it founded two female monasteries within the Congregation, Cambrai (1623), and Paris (1651). In both, the nuns were enclosed, but one of their principal tasks was to pray for the their monk missionary brothers. Their life allowed them to develop a spirit of contemplative and mystical prayer.
Charles Walmesley OSB, On action in beasts, 1751
The English Benedictines in the more tolerant eighteenth century expanded their social contacts and their interests. They became interested in literature and the new sciences of the Enlightenment. But the suppression of all the religious orders during the French Revolution, 1789-94, saw the English monks and nuns first imprisoned and then forced to flee back to England.
The Liverpool Martyrs of Charity, 1847
Mission in England and Wales
The monks took advantage of the new freedom stemming from Catholic Emancipation (1829). They established missions (parishes) in the developing industrial centres where Catholics were numerous because of Irish immigration. Benedictine bishops and priests founded schools, built grander churches and encouraged close-knit congregations. The monasteries themselves were able to return to a more stable community life.
Gimpie, Australia, 1868
In the 19th-century, English Benedictines became missionaries overseas. An English Benedictine bishop installed in Mauritius looked after an area called 'Oceania' stretching from the Cape of Good Hope to Western Australia. English monks and nuns were particularly influential in Australia where they built churches and schools and cared for the local inhabitants many of whom were ex-convicts.
in the 20th-century
The monasteries have run schools for centuries, and many vocations have come from them. During the 20th century, the schools grew, but by 2000 some of the smaller schools had closed, while others had become co-educational, with monks acting as chaplains. Many Benedictine students have played a major part in English and Welsh society.
Cardinal Basil Hume
The Benedictines expanded through the early 20th century, founding new monasteries and developing new apostolates. By 1970 novices became fewer and the monasteries had to adapt to changed circumstances. The Congregation continued to enjoy, however, a national reputation which was exemplified in the appointment of Abbot Basil Hume as Archbishop of Westminster in 1976. Cardinal Basil died in 1999.